Friday, September 24, 2010

Crisis of Faith

Every year in India, and particularly in the city of Mumbai, Hindus participate in a festival, known as Ganesh Caturthi, to celebrate the god Lord Ganesh. This festival takes place in September and lasts eleven days. It is highly elaborate and consists of dancing, painting, singing folk songs, and most noticeably, constructing large statues of the god Ganesh.

These statues, strangely enough, present a particular problem to the environment of India. At the end of the eleven-day celebration, the statues are placed in the river to symbolize the farewell to Ganesh. Historically, these statues were made of mud, soil, clay, and sandalwood paste. These substances were easily biodegradable. However, in recent times, as this festival has been more elaborate, the statues began to be constructed from plaster of paris. This is not a naturally occurring substance and takes years to dissolve in a river. In addition, the statues are now painted using paints heavy in lead and mercury, which are also far from naturally occurring.

This wouldn’t seem to be such a problem until one understands how many of these statues are placed into the river during this festival. In Mumbai alone, 190,000 were placed in the river, and some of these statues were ten feet tall. Studies of water quality in Mumbai and surrounding areas have revealed that the statues have increased the iron, mercury, and acid levels significantly. Because there are also many fishing communities in this area, this pollution has ramifications beyond the water itself.

In response, the environmental secretary of Mumbai has considered a ban on plaster of paris, but because the festival is so enormous, the law has been deemed impossible to implement. Efforts have been made to promote the buying and selling of “green” statues, which would be easily biodegradable in the river, but sales of these statues do not seem to be competitive with the environmentally disastrous models. One concern among the people is that the statues made of weaker materials will not hold up as they are dragged from the crowded streets to the river. The desire to celebrate decadently may defeat common sense in this case. Will there be a solution in sight?

-Evan Aronson, Legal Extern

Ash and Burn

Recently, the explosion of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, California created a fire that killed four people and injured more than fifty. In addition to this tragedy, the fire may have some unforeseeable hazardous effects on both the air and water in the surrounding area.

Everyone knows that large fires have the potential to burn all in their path, such as trees, homes, and cars. When these things burn, however, they may also leave behind chemicals that are hazardous to the environment. Previous similar fires, in the cities of San Diego and San Bernadino, left behind metals from melted batteries and car parts, asbestos from roofing and insulation in homes, pesticides, herbicides, and other hazardous chemicals from burned tires, plastics, and light bulbs. After the San Diego fire, EPA officials failed to remove some of the ash containing these hazardous chemicals. During the rainy season, this ash found its way into the public water supply and was deemed harmful to human health.

In San Bruno, officials are learning from this mistake. They are trying to remove the harmful ash as quickly as possible, but they are sacrificing chemical testing in the process. The county staff has not ruled out the possibility of gases such as benzene, acetone, and butane, which are flammable and corrosive, finding their way into the air. In addition to the air, there is also the possibility that the metals, and the chemicals formed from the burning of items such as rubber and light bulbs, have found their way into the soil. These chemicals may then find their way into the regional aquifer, which is the source of water for not only San Bruno, but for surrounding cities as well.

With both the direct and indirect effects of this natural gas explosion being as great as they are, one cannot help but wonder if this industry will be subject to the same sort of scrutiny that the offshore oil drilling industry has received. The only silver lining to such disasters may be the reevaluation of the safety procedures of these industries, and a change for the better in the future.

-Evan Aronson, Legal Intern

Monday, September 20, 2010

Keeping an Eye on Fracking

Recently, the EPA sent out letters to nine drilling companies asking for detailed information about the chemicals used in the process known as fracking. Fracking is the fracturing of underground rock in order to extract natural gas. The request for information is in response to a growing concern that the chemicals used in this process could be contaminating the water supply. In 2004, the EPA concluded that the fracking process was safe, but some believe this analysis was rushed and politically motivated.

For example, in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, people have been coming to public meetings with large samples of yellow, foul smelling water. The same is true for public meetings in Texas and Colorado. The public in these cases believed that natural gas fracking was the culprit of this yellow water, but is this the case? The natural gas companies are hoping that it is not. Industry spokesmen contend that none of the chemicals used in the fracking process actually reach the water table, which consists of the water we drink. Regulation of this industry, the spokesmen claim, could not come at a worse time. These spokesmen believe that the nation needs to develop sound alternatives to oil and coal, and that jobs in the industry will be destroyed by additional burdens.

The EPA is giving each of the companies that it is investigating seven days to respond to the request for information, and thirty days to actually provide the information. The EPA is considering legal action for non-compliance with these requests. The agency plans on publishing a new study on the fracking chemical issue by 2012.

-Evan Aronson, Legal Intern

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Toast to the Champagne Industry

For those who believe in the phenomenon of global climate change, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is a major concern. Across the globe, lowering emissions of carbon dioxide has become a mission. While it might seem to some to be a mission meant only for radical environmentalists on the fringe of society, lowering carbon dioxide emissions has some practical benefits as well.

A good example can be found in the champagne industry. The bubbles one finds in one’s champagne are created by carbon, and the industry is responsible for releasing 200,000 metric tons of the gas into the environment every year by producing and shipping its product. Upon realization of this enormous output, a champagne company in France, Pommery, has decided to shrink the size of its bottle.

The new champagne bottle will lose only 2.3 ounces of material, but Pommery projects that this will cut the company’s carbon emissions by 25 percent by the year 2020. And for those not interested in cutting their carbon emissions, this smaller bottle is also simply good for business. Industry wide sales of champagne have been down by about 5 billion euros since 2007. Economists project that the savings in production costs generated by these smaller bottles will help the industry’s profits rise again after this three-year fall.

This example demonstrates that the aims of environmentalists and the aims of businesses are not always mutually exclusive. Many believe that environmentalists are out to harm business with oppressive restrictions on issues such as carbon emissions. But if reducing these emissions can save companies money and help them to become profitable again, then perhaps environmentalists are not so oppressive after all. Perhaps the two seemingly opposing sides can work together.

-Evan Aronson, Legal Intern